August 4, 2007

8/04/07 Lavaur France

Nalanda Monastery

I am sure a lot of you are curious as to what my job is exactly at Nalanda. As I said before, they have been building a new monastery building for the last ten years and are now starting to do some of the detail work, including work on the main shrine. That's where I come in.

Even though I don't have any skills working with gold-leaf, Jean-Francois, the architect/builder/monk must have felt that I was capable of being trained. So, in the three weeks before Jean-Francois left for retreat, I worked hard at learning all I could about what I was working on.

Basically, there are literally hundreds of small ornamental pieces, some as small as my fist to a few as big as my arm, that will be mounted on the shrine. They are made of plaster cast from molds, sealed with paint, glue is applied so I can then apply the gold-leaf. Later, they will be mounted on the shrine.

Even though Jean-Francois and another volunteer Jean-Luc cast most of the pieces, I've had to cast new ones for various reasons, one of which is I keep breaking them. They are extremely fragile. But in one case, I modified one of the pieces because it was a little too different than all the rest, and then we re-casted replacements. Jean-Francois seemed pleased with my adaptability.

Casting one of the larger pieces

Tsultrim, who is in charge of the workshop, helped teach me all about plaster casting and even how to make molds. But no matter how perfect you make the mold, there is alway excess plaster along the edges that needs to be removed and smoothed out.

Doing a bit of sanding on a bigger piece

Because plaster is so porous, each piece needs to be painted before we can apply the size for the gold-leaf. Because the gold-leaf is so thin when applied, any slight imperfection like a brush stroke will show, Tess had this idea of dipping the pieces into the acrylic paint.

To paint them, I dip them in acrylic

Then to speed up the drying time, I use compressed air to 'blow' them dry. They are dry enough to touch in less than a few minutes.

Using compressed air to speed up the drying time

Setting them on a rack to dry even more

After both the front and back have been 'blown' dried, if the sun in shining I put them on a plastic rack out on the granite walkway to dry even more. Then they all get stored in my own workroom in the new building. Many of the pieces have flowers in the design which will not be gold-leafed, so I give them a white undercoat and they will be painted later.

My workroom

Now is time to begin gold-leafing: First I apply size, a mixture of glue and varnish, to the piece and let it dry for a few hours. If it's too wet, the size seeps through the gold-leaf giving it a dull appearance. And if it's too dry, the gold-leaf won't stick.

Because the gold-leaf is so delicate, I have to take care not to have any air movement in the room, so no open windows no matter how hot it is. And woa to me if I sneeze as it sends many Euros of gold-leaf floating throughout the room. When it's ready, I gently get a sheet of gold-leaf and cut it into small squares using a special board and knife.

Then, only using static electricity, I use a very small brush to lift a square of gold-leaf, and moving slowly, move it over the size and gently lay it on the piece.

Applying the gold-leaf is a delicate job

I cover the whole piece with gold-leaf, then use gold-dust to fill in any missing spots. Then I brush all the loose bits, to be used as gold-dust for the next one, and sit the piece out for the size to completely dry. Usually the next day, I wipe the whole piece with cotton balls to remove any last loose bits of gold and to make it shine even more.

One down, only 499 to go

And believe it or not, I only have time to do about three or four pieces a day. So, I have a lot of work ahead of me to say the least.